“In a Perfect World . . .” Shabbat Tzav Friday, April 3, 2020

“This story began with percentages and numbers. Now, it’s names.” That’s what Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal wrote this week about life in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic – New York City.

Those of us around the country see the numbers growing exponentially day by day – of the sick and the dead. Of the doctors and nurses and ambulance personnel and hospital custodians fearing exposure because of emergency and safety equipment desperately needed but not delivered. But we cannot know what it’s like the way a New Yorker can.

“Everyone here knows someone who’s sick with it,” Jason Gay writes, “or at least someone who thinks they’re sick with it, because the testing is still short, and the hospitals are urging the manageably unwell to ride it out at home . . . Everyone’s got a co-worker, a friend, a family member. . . And the sirens, it’s a real thing.”

It’s bad in New York. It’s getting there in other cities. It’s all around us here in central Pennsylvania, where people in just the last few days are finally taking social distancing seriously in grocery stores and on sidewalks and in the post office.

And we’re all scared. We’re scared because we don’t know who’s carrying it without knowing it. We’re scared because it’s impacting young people, too, not just the elderly. We’re scared because, despite our best efforts, it seems to be an equal-opportunity catastrophe.

Except when it’s not. Jason Gay, while praising the indominable spirit of New Yorkers helping each other with kindnesses great and small, pointed out that for some, it’s more difficult than others:

“The people getting hit the hardest are the vulnerable,” he wrote. “Inequities of the system that were always there – job security, health care, access to technology – have been brought into sharp relief.”

And as I read his column this week, the inequities were jumping off the page at me. Below his column, on the sports page, was this headline for a story by NFL reporter Andrew Beaton:

“The Sports World Went Dark. NFL Teams Spent More than $2 Billion in a Week.”

I don’t begrudge professional football players their salaries. They are the talented elite, and, for many of them, their pro careers are notoriously short. But couldn’t this auction of talent known as free agency have waited?

The juxtaposition of these two stories in Monday’s paper made it all the more startling.

As Jason Gay noted, protecting and coping are more difficult for vulnerable people than for many of us. So each of us copes the best we can with the tools we have on hand, understanding that the system is not equal. It’s not at all the system we might hope for at this moment. It’s certainly not world that the Torah imagines it might be.

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives us God’s command to Aaron and his sons, the soon-to-be anointed high priests of the Israelite nation, as to how they should conduct the offerings that the people will bring them at the altar. The command is highly detailed, because there are a lot of offerings.

There are offerings for every day and on special festive days. There are sin offerings and guilt offerings from those who have offended in ways big and small. There are offerings of well-being given by those who want to give thanks to God for making it through a difficult time. And there are votive, free-will offerings, from those who just want to thank God for their very existence.

The bottom line is: Every Israelite will be bringing offerings on a regular basis for reasons and for seasons. Every Israelite, old or young, rich or poor or just getting by. They each get an equal turn. They each get the time and attention and respect of the priests. Eish tamid tu-kad al-ha mizbeach, the priests are told: “You shall keep a perpetual fire going on the altar; it must not go out.”[1] Because all the people will need it, all the time.

Notably, the guilt offering and the sin offering – the huge unblemished animals that people bring in repentance, to atone and receive God’s forgiveness – aren’t the only gifts that God deems to be “kodesh kodashim” – “most holy.” The meal offering, too, is described this way. The lowly meal offering. The handful of flour and oil that is partially burned on the altar and then turned into simple unleavened cakes – matzah – for the priests to eat.

The great 15th century Spanish sage Isaac Abarbanel wonders: Why should this be? Why would unleavened cakes made with a handful of flour be as important to God as the animals whose burned flesh is described as a pleasing aroma for God?

And he answers: The meal offering too is “most holy,” in honor of those who bring an offering to God despite their poverty.[2]

The size of the gift isn’t what’s important. What’s important is what it means to the donor.

The Midrash[3] teaches:

Once a woman brought a handful of fine flour (for a meal offering), and the priest despised her — publicly humiliated her — saying: “See what she offers! What is there in this to eat? What is there in this to offer up?”

But that night, it was shown to him in a dream: “Do not despise her! It is regarded as if she had sacrificed her own life.”

The poor person’s handful of flour is equal in God’s eyes to the wealthy person’s bull. This is a system designed for inclusion of opportunity, and equality of treatment. It is the ideal that the Torah strives for and that God encourages us to follow.

In fact, the command to keep the eternal flame – the eish tamid – burning (Lev. 6:6) comes in the verse right before the description of the simple meal offering (Lev. 6:7). God seems to be emphasizing to us that the eish tamid needs to be there most especially when the poor approach, because they are the people most easily forgotten and imperiled in a less equal world. As the Midrash[4] also teaches: “The altar is enhanced by the sacrifice of a poor person.”

“Kodesh kodashim” – in a perfect world, all of these are most holy. In our imperfect world, all of those who serve on the front lines and put their lives at stake are most holy. But so are those who bring companionship to a lonely neighbor, or who take from their own cupboards to bring to the food bank. This is the great equalizer – we bring the gifts we have to give.

And because of that, the eish tamid still burns. It burns because we keep it burning – inside our homes, and inside ourselves. As Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook wrote a hundred years ago in pre-state Israel:

“We are taught that a person who extinguishes even one ember on the altar has violated the prohibition that “it will never be put out.” This is all the more true for one who extinguishes an ember of the spiritual fire in the spiritual altar – the Jewish heart.”[5]

As we approach Passover, our zman cheiroteinu, our season of our peoples’ deliverance, we pray for peace and healing and comfort for everyone – and we work to make it so, bringing the light of holiness into the world with each great act of kindness, no matter how small it may seem. The Torah’s message is that we all have something to give. So give what you can in this perilous time.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Lev. 6:6

[2] The Commentators’ Bible The JPS Miqraot Gedolot Leviticus, edited, translated and annotated by Michael Carasik (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2009), p. 41.

[3] Leviticus Rabbah III:5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Torah Gems Volume II Shemot/Vayikra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 256.

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